I'm an environmentalist, and I have a confession: I love to drive. Not the local stop-and-go boring traffic of the Connecticut suburbs where I live, where I combine trips and take the train whenever I can to avoid sitting annoyed behind the wheel. But suggest a good road trip, and I'm there. And I'm more than willing to do the bulk of the driving. So much so that I've driven to California and back — twice — on my own. In fact, most of my road trips have been solo, and I've done some of my best creative thinking behind the wheel.
However, ever since I took my first truly epic road trip (3,000 miles with my grandma around Florida when I was 8), I've recognized that music alone won't cut it for amusement during the long haul. My grandma loved books on tape, and we scared ourselves silly with recordings of Stephen King's short stories, and collections of vintage tales of the early American colonies and mystery stories.
These days I tend toward more intellectual fare; I love learning a bit of something while I'm whiling away the miles. And I have found that discrete chunks of about an hour are perfect for breaking a voyage into digestible parts. So I really depend on podcasts, and all of the below are free (though if you have a few bucks, make a donation to keep these programs no-cost, especially the public radio offerings) and very high quality.
This American Life (almost) never fails to please; this long-running show hosted by the inimitable Ira Glass makes for great driving entertainment with themed shows that sometimes cover one fabulously interesting story (recently a whole hour was given over to the hilarious tale of "the PI Moms" which detailed a group of Made-for-TV private investigators who weren't). At other times, four or five shorter sketches highlight a theme like "breakups" or "amusement parks," exploring individual accounts of said theme in short fiction, eyewitness accounts, creative nonfiction and music.
The Moth's tagline is "true stories told live" and that pretty much covers it. Held in various cities around the country, The Moth storyslams bring together performers and actors, the elderly, ex-cons and college students alike to tell a story around a theme live and without notes. The best of the best make it into the podcasts, which are 10-15 minute snippets of humanity's best. Hilarious, sob-worthy, mind-bending, and just plain heartwarming in turns, the huge variety of voices mimics hanging out at the best bonfire ever.
Stuff You Missed in History Class from How Stuff Works is so much more fun and intriguing than the title suggests; a pair of young, upbeat women history buffs brief the listener on aspects of history that are way more interesting than what most of us were forced to learn for the state tests in school. These ladies really bring history to life with discussions, asides, and gossip that makes you realize that history is, after all, about people who make their mark — for better or worse.
Radiolab, which is produced by WNYC, is a sort of weird-science podcast — by which I mean that while sciencey topics are the umbrella under which the strangeness gathers, there is pretty wide latitude for how that plays out. Recent shows have included "Loops" and "Talking to Machines," blending fiction, journalism, interviews and music to delve into a given topic. And their creative production style, which really takes the audio format seriously (with all kinds of sound effects and voice-blendings) keeps things interesting.
The New Yorker's fiction podcast is a bit of literary duetting that I actually save up over time for longer trips, they are so enjoyable. Famous contemporary authors read their favorite fiction stories from past issues of the magazine (sometimes 50 years old, sometimes from just a few months back), and the pre- and post-reading discussion with fiction editor Deborah Treisman gives insight to the stories and authors you won't find anywhere else.